Adam Reynolds was marking his 218th game for the Bunnies when he led his men out onto the field against Newcastle on Saturday afternoon, becoming the second most capped Rabbitoh of all time after Nathan Merritt, even though both players are still a long way behind John Sutton at 336 games to his name. With Damien Cook off the park, Benji Marshall was starting at dummy half, leaving room for Pete Mamouzelos to make his debut at backup hooker just before the break.
There was New South Wales energy all across the game, with Daniel Saifiti backing up off an Origin try, and Latrell Mitchell backing up off two Origin tries. Latrell, in particular, had a massive night for the Blues, and though it was only three days since he was up in Townsville, he’d also only played three of the last seven club matches, so he was relatively rested, all things considered. Meanwhile, Reynolds and Cody Walker were fresh after not making the NSW squad this time around, and led the Bunnies with some really dextrous combinations.
They led Alex Johnston in particular, who’d scored three tries before the bye in the 38-20 win over the Eels, and put down the first three here as well. The fourth South Sydney try came from Jaydn Su’A, who built on an absolute belter of a run from Latrell on the cusp of the final quarter. Nevertheless, Newcastle kept the Bunnies out over the last twenty, and managed to head into halftime with a level scoreline, even if they didn’t make the most of five straight scrum feeds and a barrage of field position in the first forty.
The Saifiti brothers took the two opening charges to clear their red zone, as the smoke dissipated from the stadium, before Johnston took a knee for his opening catch. Reyno soared his first bomb from the Newcastle forty and while Tex Hoy left the ground at just the right angle of contact, he knocked on the footy when he greeted it in the air, giving Souths a fresh set in the twenty on their first possession of the night. They swept right to Taane Milne, who was cleaned up by Bradman Best and Dominic Young, and pivoted left just as rapidly.
That was all it took for the opening try, as Reynolds started a side-to-side sweep with a beautifully weighted wide ball. Benji delivered immediately at hooker, artfully showing it to clear up just enough space for a pair of catch-and-passes from Walker and Braidon Burns to put Johnston across untouched in the corner for thirteen tries in nine games against the Knights. It was clinical football, right down to Reyno’s superb sideline conversion, and a testament to South Sydney’s dominance down the left edge in 2021.
The little general went for the same formula on his next kick, but sent it a metre too far, and this time Hoy was up to it, taking it on the full in goal to garner his men seven tackles. Even though Clifford didn’t get beyond the Rabbitohs’ forty for his kick, the Knights got a scrum, and their first full set in the opposition half, when Latrell mirrored Hoy’s experience under the high ball, albeit even more dramatically. His leap was even more courageous, in the face of a tough blue and red chase, but his spill into Jacob Host was more egregious as well.
Newcastle used this set to consolidate, culminating with a deft Clifford grubber that Walker had to take into touch, behind the posts, with defenders converging from all sides. Latrell went as short as possible with the kick, and Campbell Graham actually got a hand to it, but the Knights won the contest, and got the first restart as well, thanks to a ruck error from Milne. They’d gone from their first full set in the opposition half to their first full set on the line, prompting the Bunnies to hit back with a pair of big tackles on both sides of the park.
The first came on the left, where Milne, Reynolds, Graham and Mark Nicholls combined to shut down a rollicking run from Best, before Jacob Host and Tevita Tatola followed by containing Sauaso Sue out on the right. Sensing the Rabbitohs were closing in, Clifford delivered his second inspired kick, grubbering on the fourth to tempt an escort from Walker – right when Latrell had scooped it up and set his eye at the other end of the park. The Knights had their second set on the line, so it was paramount they put down some points now.
Daniel Saifiti came close on tackle two, when he delivered ten post-contact metres to almost drag Su’A beneath the bar, but once again it came down to Clifford’s kick. This time he opted for a chip to the right, where Johnston summoned enough pressure to force an Enari Tuala knock-on deep in goal. Now the Bunnies had a twenty-metre restart and seven tackles, effectively absorbing the momentum that Newcastle hadn’t been able to coalesce into a try, starting with a very late offload from Tatola to Benji that looked to be a key consolidator.
Instead, Benji tried to repeat the offload a moment later, and knocked on in the face of a big ball-and-all hit from Jayden Brailey. The Knights had their third scrum feed of the evening, and still had a chance to sink back into the adrenalin of their camp-out on the Rabbitohs’ line. Conversely, all the Bunnies had to do to shut down that possibility was finish a set or two, or even make some inroads into Newcastle territory and level the balance of field position (they were sitting at 39%). It was critical, then they make the most of a restart off a Best offside.
Once again, though, Benji succumbed late in the count, when he flicked a forward ball out to Reyno, who had overrun it a little as well. With their fourth scrum, Newcastle had to prove they could capitalise on all this possession, especially after Hame Sele lifted Sue clean off his feet on tackle two. While Clifford booted through another great grubber at the end of it all, Keaon Kolamatangi was up to it, defying both Sue and Lachlan Fitzgibbon to launch himself back over the try line just beside the left post.
Averting this dropout was the key moment at the end of the first quarter, injecting the Bunnies with self-belief again as Host came in for a rocking tackle on Hoy early in the next Newcastle count, bolstered by a follow-up hit from Nicholls. The Knights may have got a restart off a Koloamatangi ruck error, but their repeat set came apart three tackles in, on the brink of the red zone, when Clifford passed too hard, forcing a knock-on from Jacob Saifiti. Finally, South Sydney had a scrum to begin what felt like a hitback, despite their 6-0 lead.
They used this set to consolidate, wisely eschewing any risky plays, although Reynolds could have sent the kick deeper, since there wasn’t much room out on the left edge for Johnston to do anything with it. For a moment, that tiny glitch looked set to open up Newcastle’s game once again, as Conor Watson sent Best into space up the left for fifty run metres. Cometh the hour cometh the man, however, as Latrell launched himself onto Best and then took Clifford’s grubber right on the chest to shut down this Knights surge as quickly as it had begun.
Yet in the spirit of this increasingly precarious game Tom Burgess coughed it up a moment later, while both sides got some breathing-space as Best got to his feet, his right leg having buckled at an awkward angle during the contact with Latrell. The Knights got the best of this brief break, finally delivering off their fifth scrum after a trio of steadying runs on the right edge. Mitch Barnett took it a bit further infield, before Best and Clifford swept it out to the left, where Young put it down in his second NRL game and fourth match of top-flight footy.
It didn’t hurt that it was an intensified version of Johnston’s try – even more flamboyantly untouched – nor that Latrell was unable to get across in time. Clifford missed the sideline kick but this was still a reassuring sequence for the Knights, who were pumped on the restart, as Saifiti poured into Benji for another bout of post-contacts, and Barnett barged into Burgess to ensure that Clifford got to his kick in Rabbitohs territory. Meanwhile, the Bunnies played fast and hard on the next set, desperate to recoup their territory as rapidly as possible.
They did well, applying enough pressure on the subsequent Newcastle set to force Clifford to kick from inside his own forty. With a restart on tackle one, off a Josh King ruck error, this was a good chance for South Sydney, who only needed one more burst of field position to start congealing again. Instead, Reynolds booted another average kick, this time a grubber to the right edge, where Hoy brought it back into a barnstorming Rabbitohs chase whose energy trickled over into Milne’s high contact on Young on tackle one.
No sequence so eloquently encapsulated the way the rhythm had shifted from team to team like this one. Although there was a two point difference, in spirit the game was all wrapped up, as both teams searched for the one-man play, or the critical error, that would break it all open again. The Bunnies got their chance at the end of this same set, when Best knocked the high ball backwards, and King fumbled it on the ground. Add Jacob Saifiti being put on report for a swinging arm into Liam Knight on tackle one, and the Rabbitohs had their chance.
This was one of the softer penalties of the night, and only looked serious in real time (if it did at all) because it came right when Knight was richocheting off a brutal head clash with Burgess. In any case, it was that final ingredient the Bunnies needed, since they now consolidated with a repeat of their opening try, and a double for Johnston, off a subliminal cut-out bullet ball from Walker, who ran deep into the line, and timed the angle perfectly to clear Burns and hit his winger on the chest, now only one behind the Foxx for most 2021 tries.
Reynolds added the two again, and the Bunnies recovered their six point lead. A try on the restart would thoroughly quash Newcastle’s adrenalin before the break, so it was frustrating when Graham knocked on early in the count, off a mistimed catch-and-pass from Latrell. The Knights had one of their most methodical sets off the subsequent scrum, making their way clinically from thirty to twenty to ten, and hitting the chalk with speed and strength, before Clifford’s boot did the job again, forcing Latrell to send it dead right on the dead ball line.
Latrell sent the dropout further this time, but not that much further, so the Knights were back in the red zone by tackle two, when all Clifford’s vision with the kicks culminated with his best of the night – a chip to the right corner, where Johnston got caught out of position, and tried to knock it back to his fullback, only to flick it forward for an unintentional Kurt Mann assist. Right when the Bunnies had finally found their flow, the Knights had hit back to end this first stanza in the spirit of the arm-wrestle with which most of it had unfolded.
Nevertheless, Clifford’s sideline kick would be the last time Newcastle got on the board, as the Bunnies doubled their scoreline with twelve unanswered points in the second stanza. Benji was back on the bench when they returned to the park, with Pete Mamouzelos settling into the hooker role after joining the fray just before half time. Souths had the first set, and made decent metres, getting Reyno midway up the field for his first kick, and did well to keep Newcastle in their thirty for most of the next set, forcing Clifford to boot it long.
While neither of these two sets were particularly impressive for the Bunnies, they had a new calm and focus since returning from the sheds, creating the sense they only needed to wait for their next opportunity to retake the lead. It came pretty quickly, at the end of their next set, with one of the most volatile sequences under the kick so far. Walker chipped to the left edge, where Burns offloaded on the ground back inside to Host, who in turn tapped it back for Koloamatangi to shift it across to Reynolds for a second kick, straight down the middle.
Best was forced to ground it behind the crossbar, meaning this was a dropout at the very least, before a late shot from Barnett on Reyno turned it into a tap-and-go from the ten. As with the first forty, the Bunnies were right on the Newcastle line within five minutes, while the Knights got a big blow when Best finally succumbed to the leg twist from that earlier Latrell tackle, and left the park. Meanwhile, Young tried to intercept an arcing harbour bridge ball from the South Sydney fullback, but knocked on to concede a scrum from the ten.
With two straight starts from the ten, and not even a full set between them, the Rabbitohs had to capitalise now, especially when they got six again early in the count, thanks to an offside from Brailey. They had two scary moments, first when Latrell slipped to ground with what initially looked like an injury, but was just an obstruction avoidance, and then when Liam Knight seemed to have coughed up the footy, only for King to get pinged for a strip instead.
When they started the next repeat set, then, they seemed to have absorbed all possible errors, and would have scored straight off their next sweep if Young hadn’t reached out his massive wingspan to rein in a Walker flick pass. He knocked on, but saved a try, although any risk-benefit calculus was moot a play later, when Walker drifted left and set up Johnston for a hat trick in the corner. Of the three tries, this was the one where Johnston played the biggest role, since he took it further back, with a more compressed defence to contend with.
Receiving the footy fifteen metres out, he shifted it subliminally from his right hand to both hands, and then leaped a full metre out from the chalk, sailing over the sideline as he planted it down tip-first with his left palm. Bookended by two left hand carries, this was a testament not only to Johnston’s speed but to his intuitive and mercurial ball handling, since even a little less sensitivity to the Steeden would have probably denied him the four points here, which put him level with Josh Ado-Carr for most putdowns of the season.
Reyno was absolutely banging them through from the sideline too, slotting through another clinical conversion before Walker cemented his comeback from Young’s attempted intercept with one of the best intercepts of his own career. It came after Mamouzelos infringed the ruck on the Knights’ next carry, meaning the visitors were at the ten by play four, where Barnett opted for an offload instead of just taking the tackle for a Clifford kick. All Walker had to do was reach out his right arm to receive it so cleanly he looked like the intended target.
The South Sydney spine was now revitalised, as Latrell delivered his most courageous take under the high ball yet, collecting it at the precise moment that Barnett smashed into him, and not moving an inch as he absorbed the contact of the big second-rower. At the start of the next set, Reynolds and Walker drilled Hoy on tackle one, rolling him a couple of metres backwards, and nearly forcing the footy free, as a new wave of adrenalin started to crest over the field. The Bunnies had found their flow again, and Newcastle were struggling to catch up.
For a few sets the game hung in the balance, like a standing wave, as Reyno and Walker almost found space up the Bunnies’ right edge, and Clifford responded with a bomb that was soaring but not especially challenging. Relaxed enough to wait for their next shot, the Bunnies then trapped the Knights in their own thirty for an entire set, thanks in part to a botched pass from Mann halfway through the count, and while Clifford did well to boot it sixty metres, Latrell was staunch under the high ball, and had it back at the halfway line when he took the tackle.
Latrell has such an expressive face that you easily see him shift from level to level of determination, and he was clearly notching it up here, gathering the entire South Sydney spirit into the speed with which he brought them out of their own territory. He was stamping the game in cardinal and myrtle, galvanising his men into their final try of the night, which came only a few tackles later, off a pair of beautifully weighted balls from Reyno and Su’A that together spoke to the spectrum of strength and speed that steers South Sydney.
Reynolds started with a trademark grubber, getting a good ricochet off Jack Johns that set up Su’A to toe it along the turf with such tactility that he seemed to have fused boot and hands by the time he tapped it down with his left palm for a grounding that was just as mercurial as his kick. Seeing such a big bopper score such a delicate try was the ultimate spectacle for the Rabbitohs, as Reynolds booted through the two from right in front, and the Knights learned that Best’s ankle roll had been upgraded to a syndesmosis.
It was a minor victory, then, that Newcastle managed to keep out South Sydney during the final quarter, despite a ruck error from Mann early in the restart, and a dropout at the end of the restart, off a superb Walker chip and a tough Milne chase on Young, who only just secured the Steeden behind the line. Clifford risked a short kick, and conceded even more field position than he could have imagined when Watson leaped up to tap it back in field, but got the tip of a boot to touch at the last second, gifting Souths a new set right on the Knights’ line.
In one of the biggest letoffs so far, Walker knocked on midway through the set, and Milne responded with high contact, boosting Newcastle up the field, and out of danger – until Latrell summoned what should have been the summative South Sydney play. Seizing a Watson kick on the bounce, and swerving away from the chase, he stormed into space up the right, focusing his expression in the same way as his last brilliant return, but with even more intensity now, before dancing over a Barnett ankle tap and flicking the footy back in field.
With so much speed, and such a dishevelled Newcastle line, this should have been an assist, or led to an assist, so it was agonising when Benji knocked on, forcing Graham to really scramble to prevent the Knights getting the ball back and disrupting the South Sydney line just as rapidly. The visitors had the scrum, and Sue wasted no time adding the post-contacts, while Tuala embodied the resilience of Newcastle during this last sequence by withstanding a five-man pack, led by Burns, Graham and Host, who tried to drag him over the right sideline.
Even better for the Knights, Graham was pinged for an illegal strip here, while the Bunnies how now faced severe disappointments in both their right edge attack and Newcastle’s right edge attack. Still, a Barnett error dented their momentum, while a Tatola knock-on, and an unsuccessful South Sydney challenge, robbed the game of some of its adrenalin as the last ten minutes got underway. These were pretty uneventful until the last two, when Johnston broke into space up the right for a forty-metre dash on tackle one.
It would have been great to see Johnston nab a try on the other wing, but the Knights contained him in time. Even then, there was a chance, since the Rabbitohs quickly shifted it out to the left, where Walker curved up the sideline before popping a short one back inside to Latrell, who also hit space, and was brought down twenty out. With a rapid play-the-ball, the Bunnies could have mustered a third break here, but instead Latrell knocked on as he was rising from the ground, and the game was over for both sides.
Despite some sublime moments, this final fumble did remove some of the edge for South Sydney, so they’ll be looking to make the most of a Broncos outfit dispirited by their last two losses against Canberra and St. George when they rock up at Suncorp for Thursday night footy. On the other side of the Steeden, Newcastle did well to keep the Rabbitohs out during this last quarter, and will be looking to draw on the best moments of their first forty when they host the Warriors back in the Hunter on Saturday evening.